“African-American girls always score higher than their white peers when it comes to self-esteem,” one of my High School teachers lectured. I struggle to remember why broaching this subject was germane to our class discussion, since this statement was made by my French teacher.
“Way higher,” she added, standing in front of the projector with French verb conjugations. She seemed pretty perturbed by this, and added that this “needed to change.” White people needed to figure out what Black families were doing, so their girls could have the same high levels of self-love and self-esteem.
We were all fifteen at the time, virtually clueless about where this rant was coming from and, to be fair, during French class. But her outburst sparked curiosity in me. I found her passion for understanding why, just why those Black girls love themselves more than us whites a bit concerning, but she was always fair to me, and I never suspected her of racism.
I never forgot her admission, not because it hurt my feelings or made me feel singled out, but because no one argued with her, which surprised me. This happened at Huron High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a mostly white and affluent population. Most of my peers were raised by doctors or professors, which seemed to be responsible for their inflated egos and predisposition to argue with adults with at least three times as much life experience and education as they had. Yet, the click of a mechanical pencil could be heard after she made that statement.
Was she right?
Years later, I discovered research – research she may have been referring to – about the racial disparity between Black and white girls when it came to self-esteem and self-image. In 1998, the Maryland Medical Research Institute released a study that concluded: “A reason for Black girls’ higher and more stable self-worth, and their greater satisfaction with their physical appearance… may be racial differences in attitudes toward physical appearance and obesity.” The same discrepancy was found in 2012 when The Kaiser Family Foundation teamed up to conduct a survey. When asked: if “I see myself as someone who has high self-esteem,” Black women strongly agreed 67% of the time, while only 43% of white women strongly agreed with the statement.
Self-esteem is a tricky concept, and I’d never put much thought into where exactly I landed on the spectrum. I certainly didn’t expect there to be a racial disparity, but when I think about my mom and the women in my family, it’s not as surprising.
My ma was pretty different from my white friends’ moms. She couldn’t simply read Snow White or Sleeping Beauty to me; they had to be accompanied by Afro-centric and feminist commentary. She also prohibited me from watching Disney’s Pocahontas due to the romanticization of genocide. Her desire to ruin my fun didn’t stop during my teen years when I went through a women’s magazine and makeup phase.
One day, I read that the “new sexy thing” was the thigh gap; when a person stood with their feet together and their thighs didn’t touch. Even then, I found this declaration specious since the average American dress size was 14, but I still found myself rushing into the bathroom to look in the mirror.
I frowned at my reflection. The thigh gap was not only non-existent, it was far from ever being possible. Instead, I saw a pair of wide hips.
My mom stood in the doorway, staring at me inquisitively. “Why are you staring at your legs like that?”
“I don’t have a thigh gap,” I whined.
“A thigh gap. You see how fat my legs are, and there’s no space in between?”
“Girl,” she laughed, “that’s supposed to be there. You sound like one of those anorexic white girls.”
She walked away before I could offer a rebuttal. I was disgusted by how dismissive she was of my concerns. She believed that women of African descent were naturally curvy with wide hips and butts, so I had no business comparing myself to people with completely different body types. After I convinced her to buy me a scale, she would tease me, asking, “Are you in the bathroom again, weighing yourself like one of those white girls?”
At one point, my sister added her opinion of my body image obsession. “Most people in Michigan are fat. What do you have to be ashamed of? They not lookin’ any better than you.” It seemed like even my cool older sister wasn’t on my side.
Eventually, I was so embarrassed that I started to see this obsession as absurd, and it ended.
Women learn how to love themselves from their mothers, which was certainly true for me.
I can’t recall ever hearing my mom say something disparaging about herself or her physical appearance. Growing up, Ma seemed a bit opposed to beauty standards in general. She kept her hair short for convenience, never made much of a fuss about fashion, and didn’t wear makeup. Her beauty regimen consisted of keeping her skin moisturized with Vaseline.
I remember being repulsed by the amount of Vaseline she would use. She would even fill up a pair of old gloves, stuff her hands in, and sleep that way overnight. She couldn’t be bothered with much, but her hands had to be smooth. The only beauty advice my mom had was Vaseline, Vaseline, and more Vaseline. Ashy skin, especially ashy ankles, were practically forbidden in our house. I taught myself how to put makeup on by reading magazines like Allure, and my obsession with makeup, though extensive, was short-lived in this impermissible environment.
“All you need to do is smooth those wild eyebrows down with some Vaseline,” my mom told me, as I fussed over what color eyeshadow to wear to school.
Being skinny and obsessing over one’s appearance was reserved for privileged or weak people with low self-esteem. I wasn’t allowed to say anything negative about my appearance without one of the women in my family laughing me off as silly, just as I do when my friends call themselves ugly or gross.
Leaving the house for school usually meant being called endearing nicknames like “Pretty girl,” “Chocolate drop,” “Mamacita” or “Dark and lovely.” These compliments almost seemed like mantras. It didn’t matter that I was far, far, far from being a teenaged heartthrob, severely overweight, obsessed with Plato and Bertrand Russel, had messy hair, and a hands-off fashion sense.
At the time, I found this flattery annoying and unnecessary. I didn’t understand why there was so much anxiety around me seeing myself as gorgeous, but no matter how irritated I got, my mom bombarded me with compliments. She also presented me with images of Black beauty queens, almost as incessantly as the media bombarded me with images of skinny white girls. She bought magazines with Black supermodels such as Alek Wek on the cover, which was rare during the nineties. I also had Black Barbie dolls, which in her opinion, still weren’t good enough due to the figures’ European hair and unrealistic body type.
Those compliments seem less bizarre now as I look back on my childhood.
My mom was merely preparing me for a vicious society.
My childhood spanned from the ’90s to the early 2000s when European beauty standards were more prevalent. The beauty icons at the time were primarily people such as Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Carmen Diaz. My physical traits were in direct opposition. I had typical Negroid features: nose lacking a bridge, mahogany skin, tightly-coiled hair, and big lips. I was also fat. It didn’t help that I attended school as one of the few Black kids.
Subjectively speaking – and with consideration to cultural relativity – I was perceived as ugly.
Growing up in Ann Arbor was exhausting. It was a place touted as progressive and accepting, and this was true in theory, but in practice, a Black person driving a BMW should’ve been driving around with an asshole tighter than a dime piece. And no matter how attractive a girl was, she was very single if she was Black.
One memorable episode occurred during middle school when one of my Black girlfriends, KC, decided to confess her love for a friend named Michael. They were close friends, but when Michael, who was white, discovered KC’s lust for him, he declared she was sweet and his good friend, but he would never date a Black girl.
We were around twelve or thirteen years old and rejection was already normal for us, but I suspect it was the unapologetic racism that particularly hurt her. Although the magazine covers, movies, television shows, and advertisements were clues that Black skin was not desirable, before that moment, we had merely suspected that there was something wrong with us. This was the first time someone had explicitly stated it.
Michael’s words created a preteen melodrama. KC was understandably heartbroken, which quickly escalated into her drawing a violent image of a knife with blood dripping profusely from it, under the words – I can’t remember the exact rhetoric, but it was something like: THIS COUNTRY IS A PIECE OF SHIT AND DESERVES TO BURN AND SUFFER. She even gave the drawing to our American History teacher as her final class project. The drawing sparked outrage and concern among some of the teachers. It was not in her character to draw such violent images. The concern was also due to the fact that the piece was drawn three to four months after the 9/11 attack happened. How could KC draw such a violent image? Didn’t she know Americans were suffering?
As a child, I brushed the incident off as KC being dramatic as usual, and I didn’t attempt to measure how this would affect me as a Black girl.
Then, of course, there was Valentine’s Day, when students were given the option to buy and send suckers and flowers to a secret admirer. It was always the same: only the names of white girls were called to pick up lollipops and flowers. I could have started hating myself, internalizing how others saw me, or I could have turned into a hater, joining the chorus of Who does that bitch think she is or That shit look cheap anyways. As usual, I was indifferent. Society kept telling me that I was ugly, and it only increased as I aged.
Decades later, no one has been kind enough to tell me why I should give a shit about being seen as beautiful by others, and I can only speculate about why other Black women have the same apathetic attitude toward not being viewed as attractive based on European beauty standards.
Our only source of anxiety when it comes to beauty standards tends to be our hair.
I have friends and family who have used perms to chemically straighten their hair to the point of baldness. Buying straightened, synthetic, or human hair from beauty supply stores and paying someone to attach it is another option, an incredibly expensive option, with synthetic hair costing anywhere from $250-$1,000 and the process of attaching it, another $300-$500. And these are just the prices for ordinary Black women. I don’t want to imagine what women like Beyonce’ or Kerry Washington pay. Chris Rock even produced “Good Hair,” a documentary on the phenomenon of Black women spending millions to hide their 4C hair. It was educational, but also a bit victim-blamey since it left out why.
The one time I gave in was when I worked as a waitress in Manhattan. Most of the customers were white, and I was concerned that wearing my natural hair might have a negative impact on my tips. I got a sew-in weave to cover it. When I looked in a mirror, I saw a ridiculous spectacle. A West African face with long silky hair from Asia. I thought I looked pretty absurd, but my tips did increase.
Now that I just wear my hair in braids, I receive racially motivated comments – from Black and white people, actually. Lots of questions and sometimes even demands regarding when I will straighten my hair or “do something different” with it. I mean I could wear my hair out in an afro or explore other natural hairstyles, but I don’t want to because I’m lazy, and it’s my hair, I’ll do what I want with it. It’s interesting that my white friends can wear the same hairstyle for years without the same scrutiny.
I originally thought I was crazy for observing that my tips increased after wearing my weave. For some reason, I wasn’t aware that natural Black hair was illegal in many states. In 2019, in New York City, the self-proclaimed progressive beacon of the United States finally banned discrimination against it. Employers can no longer tell Black employees that their braids aren’t appropriate for work. Or fire an employee for wearing braids, which happened to news anchor Brittany Noble when she was sick of burning her natural hair to shit just to achieve a more European look. Hiding our texture has always been more of a survival strategy against institutional racism than insecurity or self-hatred.
Institutionalized racism takes its toll on us. It starts as infants; the infant mortality rate is twice as high for Black infants, and Black mothers are more likely to die from pregnancy than white mothers. When it’s time to start school, mothers like Kelley Williams-Bolar are imprisoned for trying to send us to better districts, when there often aren’t decent alternatives in the neighborhoods we’re often forced to live in. We are six times more likely to get out-of-school suspensions based on gender and racial biases, according to Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies.
The statistics on how systemic racism impacts Black women are endless, astounding, and morbid. Gratitude is owed to my mom, my older sister, my family, and almost every Black woman I’ve met, for teaching me to feel comfortable with myself every time I look in the mirror – no matter what size I’ve happened to balloon to.
They prepared me for all of the parasites that I’ve encountered, and still encounter.
“You’ve got to be tough in this world as a Black woman” was something I often heard as a child. Black women can’t afford to have low self-esteem. We have to be really tough to thrive in a world where beauty is defined in opposition to us.
Even some of the most admired Black women aren’t exempt from European beauty standards. When Congresswoman Maxine Waters said that it was patriotic to criticize the president, instead of offering an intelligent response, former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly stated that he was too distracted by her “James Brown wig” to respond. This was the typical misogynist and racist move because most of us know, whether consciously or subconsciously, women are taught that it is their social responsibility to be pretty for mere strangers.
In a 2014 New York Times article, the actress Viola Davis was described as “darker-skinned and less classically beautiful” than lighter-skinned African-Americans such as Kerry Washington or Halle Berry.” Tennis player Serena Williams’ career has been plagued by racist and sexist attacks. In a 2013 Rolling Stones article, Stephen Rodrick compared Williams to Maria Sharapova, describing Sharapova as “tall, white and blond” while Williams was described as “…Black, beautiful, and built like one of those monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas.”
Racist attacks on Black women like Davis and Williams remind me of how the definition of beauty can be subjective and oppressive. Despite being successful in a system that aims to control and limit Black people and women, they’re reduced to racist beauty standards.
I find it fascinating that I’m able to find more critiques on their physical appearance than their performances.
Derision against Black women is still prevalent, but now we have more ethnic beauty icons like J-Lo, Beyonce, Kim Kardashian, and Rihanna. It seems that a curvy figure, big lips, and dark skin are praised as beautiful now that they’re more accessible to others through butt and lip injections. Lip fillers or lip augmentations have increased by 43 percent since 2000, while the American Society of Plastic Surgeons estimated that butt implants increased 252 percent between 2000 and 2015. The tanning industry has been a billion-dollar industry for even longer.
Having dark skin and a curvy body type has been reviled for so long that it’s a relief to see more women of color deemed beauty icons. However, this sentiment is like cheering for a seat at a very problematic table that teaches women to base their worth on how others perceive them, particularly men. It’s a disgusting process that starts when we’re girls.
Women are introduced to the male-gaze as children through movies and fairy tales such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel. As a child, I wanted to know why the prince kissed Sleeping Beauty when she was clearly unconscious? How was Rapunzel able to grow long flowing hair so strong that a man could climb it to rescue her? Why didn’t she just jump and land on her hair? Why were they all waiting on men to rescue them? Why were they all white?
Fortunately, I had my crazy mom who, I guess in her own way, answered all of my questions by reassuring me that there was nothing wrong with having darker skin. Other times, she cursed under her breath as she read the story.
At a young age, all women are given the message from our society that beauty is defined as white, thin, docile and passive – anything outside of that is ugly or deviant – but some of us are surrounded by a community that rejects these beauty standards.
I realize that all of those compliments about being “Dark and lovely” were actually crucial.
I recall some of my non-Black friends receiving very different responses from their moms when it came to their physical appearance. Or passive-aggressive gestures such as being slipped diet food in packed lunches or casual suggestions about weight-loss regimens. As an adult: Are you sure you want that haircut? Oh, are you doing Crossfit? Aren’t you afraid of how big you’ll get? How does your husband feel about your weight gain?
I’m not saying that my mom never criticizes me or my appearance – she definitely does – but it certainly happens, or happened, less frequently.
I’m sure these mothers only meant well and could not imagine the negative impact this might have on their girls. but we really do learn to love ourselves from our mothers. If you stand in the mirror and poke at your every imperfection, your little girl will eventually be right beside you doing the same, if not worse.
I remember as an adult going shopping with one of my white girlfriends who was a size zero, and barely. Everything she tried on was gorgeous and she looked elegant, yet she broke into tears each time she looked at herself. I kept telling her that she looked great, but she returned everything back to the sales rack because it made her look fat. I was repulsed and heartbroken witnessing that level of self-hatred. It also stressed me out. How much smaller did she need to become to stop feeling worthless?
Promoting European beauty standards is a billion-dollar industry, but they’ve failed to convince Black women.
We still see ourselves as beautiful. We’re happy with our lives. I didn’t need statistics to tell me that, but it was nice to see them nonetheless. It doesn’t matter how many people say you’re beautiful if you can’t see it. The journey toward inner beauty has to start a young age from parents, family, and community.
If I could see my French teacher, I would tell her to make sure her little girl hears that she’s beautiful no matter what.
And, my personal addition, as smart as Albert Einstein.
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